One of my favorite pastimes is wandering in large public libraries. Other than books or records, I am not fond of shopping and after a time can be a nuisance and drag on my wife (though she is too kind to ever say that). I need something else to do, and she needs me to find something else to do other than dreamily murmuring my way through clothing stores with her. Libraries afford great relief, at least the traditional ones, great halls like the New York Public Library or Boston Public Library or even the quiet not so dignified stacks of North Carolina State University's D.H. Hill Library, a place where I have spent many hours running my fingers down musty smelling pages, alone with words and yet strangely warmed, one of a long line of perusers or borrowers, a community across time.
The new libraries seem too noisy and media driven. I prefer perusing the shelves or losing myself deep in the book stacks. It requires time and suspending the need to accomplish a task, find a certain book even, or entertain oneself. One question frames my wandering: what here is good, true, and beautiful? Such times of wandering aim-fully are the precursor to serendipity, the good soil in which words might take root and give new insight.
I like wandering, though much like play it is a preoccupation given over to children and retirees, an idleness viewed as the province of those with little else to do but wake up and wander about, tolerated but only amusing to those with important work to do. In a society that values time management, productivity, and intensity even in recreation, pure wandering is viewed as akin to idleness, a lazy indulgence.
Writer Alan Jacobs doesn't think it is. In his recent collection of essays, Wayfaring: Essays Pleasant and Unpleasant, he calls such wandering aim-fully "wayfaring," an orientation fundamental to our nature as Christians. According to Jacobs,
An old phrase holds that to be a Christian is to be homo viator: the human being as wayfarer, as pilgrim. Wayfarers know in a general way where we are headed: to the City of God, what John Bunyan, that great chronicler of pilgrimage, called the Celestial City --- but we aren't altogether certain of the way. We can get lost for a time, or lose our focus and nap for too long on a soft patch of grass at the side of the road, or dally a few days at Vanity Fair. We can even become discouraged --- but we don't, ultimately and finally, give up. And we don't think we have arrived.
What Jacobs applies to the writing of essays --- those meanderings of the mind --- is equally applicable to life --- part of his point, of course. Reading essays, like wandering the library, like walking around a town like I have many times with no particular destination in mind, is a meandering pregnant with possibilities and hope. I still remember the African-American man leaning out of the open window of a brownstone in Milwaukee on one of my walks many years ago now, his face lit up in a smile, just taking in the world. Or the ravaged inner city of St. Louis, where flowers bloomed amid weeds and rubble --- three-dimensional essays, worlds pleasant and unpleasant and yet not without hope. As Jacobs says, "Hope comes from knowing that there is a way --- and that we didn't make it. That is why the road's unexpected turnings need not alarm us; this is why it is possible to enjoy even the unpredictable, whether it comes from without or within."
That observation hints at another virtue to wandering aim-fully: it requires trust in a God who will superintend our wanderings, provided we aim for Him. Holding lightly to my to-do list, my calendar, and my time requires giving up control --- a control I never really had anyway. Here's the instructions for such a day, ones I would like to heed more regularly: Wake up. Aim for God. And set out. Watch what happens. Keep your eyes open. Take hold of the unexpected and wrest the good, true, and beautiful from it.
When you wander aim-fully in life as in words, you never know what will happen. But it will make you wonder at a God who is behind every turn in the road, who hems you in at every side, who occupies the interstices of your every lapse in thought --- the Guide for Wayfarers. May you wander well as you seek Him.
[After a month off, I am glad to be back to the more regular and aim-ful wandering of this blog. In the interim, I did redeem the time. I wandered through various books. I took walks. I completed an outline for a book. I did something. I also did nothing, you might say, and it was very good. Very good.]